Song of India was opened in 2006, set in a colonial style house on the very expensive real estate of Scotts Road. You access the dining room via a flight of steep stairs, and inside the kitchen is partly visible in one corner of the room. Tables are large and well spaced, the room having the slightly chilly feel of most Singapore dining rooms due to the aggressively set air conditioning. The menu offered plenty of familiar North Indian staples, plus a few more unusual dishes, such as fish tikka made using barramundi (at S$38), more commonly seen in Australia than here. When Michelin came to Singapore it awarded the restaurant a star, the only Indian restaurant in town to receive this accolade.
The head chef is Manjunath Mural, who has been in this role here since the opening other than a break some years ago, when the kitchens were headed by a gentleman called Milind Sovani. He is originally from Bangalore but worked in Mumbai prior to coming here, and was apparently in the kitchen tonight. Prices are not cheap, with starters S$31 to S$69, main courses around the S$40 mark or so and extras like romali roti bread at a hefty S$10, which must generate a pretty healthy gross profit margin. There was a range of set menus priced from S59 up to S133.
The wine list offered labels such as Saint Clair Vicar’s Choice Sauvignon Blanc 2014 at S$75 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for S$39, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2015 at S$125 compared to its retail price of S$47, and Henschke Keyneton Estate Red Blend 2012 at S$175 for a wine that will set you back S$103 in the shops.
The meal began with a nibble of lentil pudding topped with mango. This was pleasant enough, quite delicate in texture though a little sweet (12/20). Some popadoms followed along with chutney, but they were the rolled up kind that shatter into dozens of pieces when you try to unravel them, making them a tricky vehicle for chutney.
I was intrigued by the barramundi tikka, having just eaten a few barramundi of varying quality a few days ago in Sydney. The pieces of fish arrived on an elaborate stand that you might normally display little pastries, five small pieces of fish plus a little tray of chutney. This was quite inventive presentation but as soon as I tried to transfer the first piece of fish to my plate I knew that things were not all well. The fish fell apart on the first touch of a fork, and indeed when I ate the first piece it was clear that the fish was significantly overcooked. The spice marinade almost rescued it, as this was good and distracted from the texture of the flesh. I contemplated sending it back, though objectively it was edible; however it was a long, long way off being a dish that should emerge from a Michelin starred kitchen (10/20).
Chicken biryani fortunately was fine, the dish arriving with a pastry cover that was cut open at the table, releasing the aromas of the dish. The rice was quite aromatic and the chicken reasonable, and although this did not compare with the very best biryani, such as that at Adaa in Hyderabad, it was certainly very pleasant (13/20).
Palak paneer had reasonable texture, though was not as light and fluffy as the best of the breed, such as at Jamavar in Goa. It was garnished rather unnecessarily with some tomatoes and chillies. The problem was that it was almost cold when it arrived. We asked for this to be reheated and when it came back warm it was fine (12/20). Aloo gobi also arrived almost cold, though the texture of the cauliflower and potatoes was reasonable, and the dish was also oddly lacking in spice. When I pointed put that it was cold they took it away but instead of preparing a new dish they just cooked the same plate for longer, so when it reappeared it was hot but the vegetables were now mushy and overcooked. I had another attempt, and this time they produced a fresh version, which was hot and had good cauliflower but soggy potato, which wasn't the case with the first, cold iteration. By now I just gave up (8/20). What was weird about the cold dishes was that we were dining very early due to a later commitment, and so were literally the first people to be seated in the restaurant, placed our order promptly, so we must have been the very first order in the kitchen. To bring out not one, but two, lukewarm dishes on the first order of the service seems bizarre to me. On the side, romali roti was fine though a bit on the flaky side compared to an optimal version (12/20).
By this stage I decided that the evening was unlikely to be rescued by some kulfi, whoever was making it, so we skipped dessert. Service was, to be frank, pretty bad. The initial order of a beer seemed to pose a surprisingly tricky challenge to the staff given that the dining room at this time was empty except for us, and it eventually turned up, after some prompting, well after the amuse bouche was served. The plates that we used for the amuse bouche were left on the table rather than being removed, and it was only after I moved them to one side that the waiter took the hint and replaced the dirty plates. Again, I would have less of an issue with this in a curry house in Brick Lane, but this was hardly Michelin star service. After the main course the table remained unbrushed while the dessert menus were offered, something that would be unlikely to happen in any other starred restaurant. Finally, when we came to the end of our bottle of mineral water the waiter asked whether we wanted another, and we declined. Nonetheless, a few moments later another open bottle appeared on the table, and I reminded the waiter that we had declined this. The second bottle still appeared on the bill, which is really taking up-selling to a new level given that we neither asked for nor consumed the bottle in question. The bill for the evening, with just four small Kingfisher beers between us, was S$259, which works out at £69 per person, with just one starter and no dessert. If you had three courses, rice bread, coffee and shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical cost per head would be around £80, which would raise eyebrows even in Mayfair.
If I ignore Michelin’s assessment for a moment, this was a pretty ropey Indian meal with a few flashes of competence (the biryani, roti) outweighed by a whole series of issues, from overcooked fish to the aloo gobi incident, exacerbated by dodgy service. It would be wholly unacceptable at just about any price point, but at this level of cost it is outrageous; I could throw a stick in Southall and hit a better restaurant. For Michelin to come here and think: “yeah, that is worth a star” seems to me an insult to chefs the world over who still regard that accolade as a career goal. This was not so much as a Song of India as a lament.